MAARAB, Lebanon: The Lebanese Forces nominated its leader Samir Geagea to run for the presidency Friday, in the opening salvo of what is set to be a contentious race.
The announcement came after a one-hour extraordinary meeting of the LF’s leadership in Geagea’s leafy mountain fortress-like residence at Maarab, north of Beirut.
“The executive committee of the Lebanese Forces decided unanimously to nominate the party’s leader Samir Geagea for the Lebanese presidential elections,” LF MP George Adwan announced at a news conference after the meeting.
Geagea, whose followers refer to him as “Al-Hakim,” a word that means both ‘the doctor’ and ‘the wise one,’ is the first political heavyweight to announce his candidacy.
In a speech before the vote, Geagea said that Lebanon was at a crossroads after the “continuous deterioration” of its security and economy.
“Lebanon’s image abroad was hit and confidence in it has been shaken,” Geagea said, addressing dozens of party cadres, MPs and officials.
“Lebanon’s borders are no longer clear due to its widespread penetration by armed groups coming and going to fight in Syria,” he added. “The state’s sovereignty has been widely violated by illegitimate arms in the interior.”
Lebanon has witnessed a spate of security incidents, clashes and attacks linked to the Syrian war. Radical groups that have claimed responsibility for the attacks targeting areas associated with Hezbollah often cite the party’s intervention in Syria as the grounds for their operations.
The LF sought to portray Geagea’s candidacy as a radical step needed to “shock” the country toward recovery. The party also said that Lebanon needed a strong president with a clear position on the key issues facing the country, rather than a bland consensus choice selected by foreign patrons.
Adwan said that previous presidents were often chosen by foreign leaders, were not independent, or lacked “color, smell and opinion.”
“The nomination of Dr. Geagea is to break this model and to say that the time has come for the Lebanese to choose a president made in Lebanon who has clear opinions,” he said.
Geagea’s persistent and vocal criticism of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria raises questions about his ability to garner enough support from across the aisle to propel him to the presidency.
His announcement also pre-empted the March 14 political bloc’s deliberations on who to back in the presidential race.
President Michel Sleiman’s six-year term ends on May 25. The two-month constitutional period in which Parliament must convene and elect a new president started last month.
Geagea, 62, is a staunch critic of Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian regime, and is also a key pillar of the Western-backed March 14 coalition.
He hails from the north Lebanon village of Bsharri, and became the head of the Lebanese Forces in 1986, when the group was a militia. He was arrested in 1994 over his suspected involvement in a bomb attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church the same year.
He was also sentenced to life imprisonment over his alleged involvement in the assassination of Prime Minister Rashid Karami in June 1987 and was not released until July 2005, when Parliament passed an amnesty law.
Karami’s nephew, former minister Faisal Karami, called Geagea’s nomination a “black day” for Lebanon that showed what he described as the country’s “moral decline.”
LF MP Fadi Karam hit back at Karami, claiming he sought to relive the “black days” of Lebanon’s history and condemning his support for the Syrian regime.
Geagea refused to share power with Hezbollah in February in Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s “national interest government” due to the party’s involvement in Syria.
But in a sign of a softer tone toward his rivals, Geagea refrained from naming Hezbollah in his opening speech, and described as a “positive step” the statement by his potential rival, Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, who said he would not run if Geagea was nominated for the presidency.
He also praised Hezbollah Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Fneish after a statement by the latter saying it was Geagea’s right to run for presidency.
“When Hezbollah takes the decision to abide by the Constitution and the laws and build the state, the LF and its leader will meet with them and join hands to build the state,” Adwan told reporters.
But responding to skepticism from reporters who questioned whether Geagea coordinated his announcement with the rest of the March 14 bloc, the LF expressed confidence that their allies would back Geagea.
Adwan said that March 14 leaders had long been aware of Geagea’s candidacy and that he had unrelentingly championed the alliance’s principles.
“It is natural that he would be nominated on behalf of March 14,” Adwan said.
In the first reaction by a March 14 official, Deputy Speaker Farid Makari hailed the nomination of Geagea, describing his chances of winning the support of the rest of the March 14 coalition as “very high.” Speaking from Parliament, he said: “Geagea is certainly a key figure in March 14 and he has all our respect and love.”
But in an indication that Geagea will face additional hurdles before securing the bloc’s nomination, Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb hinted in a TV interview that he may also run for the post.
In an appearance on LBC, Harb said that if he were to run for presidency it would be on a platform of “rebuilding Lebanon,” but insisted that the March 14 alliance should only nominate one candidate.
Earlier in the day, Future MP Ahmad Fatfat also said the bloc had not yet decided on its nominee.
Salam called for a “made in Lebanon” president, saying in an interview that his government would work to create the “right atmosphere” for the presidential election to be held.
“I hope the next president will be purely Lebanese-made as was the national interest Cabinet,” Salam said in an interview with General Security magazine that is set to be published Saturday.
“All regional and international forces that affect Lebanese affairs support electing a new president,” he said, adding that the election would create political stability.
“We are looking forward to this constitutional deadline and we do not want any vacuum in the presidency,” he said.